Facebook's Oculus Rift virtual reality headset was introduced in March for $599, leading to sticker shock and complaints from consumers who remembered promises of a $350 device. Despite the high cost of some VR headsets, there is also a handful of budget-friendly options making it possible to experience virtual reality without spending too much real money.
Can't Afford the $599 Oculus Rift? 7 Cheap VR Headsets
Google Cardboard is a virtual reality viewer literally folded out of cardboard to fit around most Android phones, as well as some Apple iPhones -- about 6 inches is the maximum screen size. The viewer has no head strap, so users must hold it to their faces. There are loads of apps to give users a feel for the capabilities of VR, including an entire YouTube library of 360-degree video content. That being said, Google Cardboard is not meant to be a serious contender in the VR space. It's made of cardboard, after all, and can't be expected to last long. With no head strap, it's not particularly comfortable and would be unpleasant to use for long periods. Despite these flaws, expert reviewers say this should be the first choice for dipping a toe into virtual reality as cheaply as possible.
As the price point suggests, the Immerse virtual reality headset is closer in quality to Google Cardboard than to a high-end VR setup. Its primary advantage is an easily adjustable head strap -- which doesn't mean it will be comfortable. A lack of padding where it rests on the nose makes it difficult to wear for long, reviewers say. The Immerse headset fits a wide variety of phones, but the process of putting one into the headset isn't easy. A lack of standard controls keep this device from being particularly interactive. Users who want to be able to watch videos without using their hands may prefer this to a Cardboard viewer, but it is not a good option for gamers.
The Freefly VR is another option that works with a variety of smartphones, so long as they are between 4.7 and 6.1 inches (this rules out the iPhone 5). It sports a solid 120-degree field of view and is compatible with Google Cardboard apps. Unfortunately, the design makes smartphone buttons inaccessible, so adjusting the volume can be a pain if not using headphones with in-line controls. On the other hand, the U.K. shopping and review site Shopomo reports that this design does a better job securing a smartphone in place than other available options, and the Freefly VR is light and comfortable to wear.
The colorful Merge VR Goggles are compatible with a wide variety of iOS and Android phones (including the iPhone 5 at the small end and the iPhone 6 Plus at the large end). They are Google Cardboard-compatible, giving Merge owners access to all those apps. The goggles are made of a purple, antimicrobial foam, so they are durable and can be passed around without worrying about where everyone's hands have been. They're also capable of augmented reality, in which images are overlaid atop virtual reality (think Arnold Schwarzenegger's vision in "The Terminator"). The downsides to the Merge VR Goggles, according to the tech review site Tom's Guide: a limited selection of exclusive content and potentially uncomfortable fit, with lenses that can slide out of position.
The general consensus among reviewers is that the Google Cardboard-compatible Homido is just a step up from the Cardboard. Trusted Reviews notes the sturdy build and lenses that can be adjusted to match the distance between the eyes. This device also comes with a head strap (although reviewers say it can be uncomfortable for some users, particularly those with bigger heads). The Homido can accommodate nearly any smartphone. Still, it lacks a standard control system, making many VR games unusable without spending another $25 to buy a controller from Homido.
The Samsung Gear VR is essentially a case that uses select Samsung phones (the Note 5, Galaxy S6, S6 Edge, and S6 Edge Plus) as the processor and display. Co-developed by Oculus, the Gear is like the baby cousin of the Oculus Rift. Reviewers are in agreement: For those who have a compatible phone, the Gear is the top choice for experiencing VR on a budget. But there are some minor gripes: It fogs up occasionally, and Tom's Guide reports that it can overheat if used for too long. That being said, there is a robust selection of apps available and the device is light and comfortable.
The Zeiss VR One compares to the Samsung Gear VR but is compatible with iOS and Android phones between 4.7 and 5.2 inches. Reviewers deem the build quality excellent and the headset comfortable to wear. Zeiss is known for top-notch camera lenses, so it's no surprise that reviewers commend the lenses for high quality and for not getting as foggy as many competitors. However, the lenses are one-size-fits-all and cannot be adjusted. That means images can be blurry and some users may get dizzy or nauseous while using the headset. The Zeiss VR One also lacks controls, making it incompatible with many apps. Add-on magnetic switch controls cost about $12. For anyone with a compatible Samsung phone, reviewers generally consider the Gear VR a better choice.